Jun 19, 2009 - By Doug Draper Fort Erie Post

Our shared waters should be protected and open to us all

As the legendary folk-rock trio Crosby, Stills & Nash put it in a song that became an anthem20for the so-called “Woodstock generation” 40 years ago this summer, “it’s been a long time comin’.”

For our Great Lakes – our primary source of drinking water and one of the most precious resources we have for sustaining our lives in this region of the world – a pledge by the federal governments of Canada and the United States to finally update the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement has been a long time comin’, indeed. And perhaps it took someone as influential as U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton who, at age 61, is not only old enough to remember the Woodstock music festival, but the near death of Lake Erie from sewage pollution and the Love Canal disaster that destroyed a neighbourhood in Niagara Falls, N.Y. and sent toxic chemicals spreading to the Niagara River in the 1970s, to make possible this long-overdue news.

Last Saturday, Clinton walked to the centre of the Rainbow Bridge in Niagara Falls and gazed out over the American and Horseshoe Falls before announcing to an audience gathered to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Boundary Waters Treaty (the first environmental protection agreement between the two countries and the first of its kind in the world) that the countries have agreed to update a Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, citizens on both sides of the border have been pressing for revision for the better part of two decades.

“It’s crucial that we honour the terms of the Great=2 0Lakes Agreement as it stands today,” said Clinton, “but we also have to update it to reflect new knowledge, new technology, and, unfortunately, new threats.”

This agreement, first signed between the two countries in 1972 and amended in 1978 and 1987 in response to growing concerns over toxic chemicals accumulating in the flesh of a Great Lakes foodchain, including humans, is in desperate need of updating to address what we now know about the potential health impacts of even low concentrations of chemicals, mixed together in the waters, on living beings up to and including we humans. It also needs updating to address invasive species (including zebra mussels, Asian carp and other foreign-born critters and plants threatening native wildlife in the lakes) and the possible impact of climate change and bids by drier regions on this continent to siphon away waters from the lakes, to the detriment of all life in our Great Lake region.

Many of these concerns are chronicled in a new book called ‘Living Waters: Reading the Rivers of the Lower Great Lakes’ by Margaret Wooster, a Buffalo, N.Y. resident and former executive director of Great Lakes United (a longtime Canada-U.S. citizens coalition around the lakes). Wooster’s book should be must reading for Great Lakes residents and is made all the more moving by the author’s first-hand accounts of hiking along or canoing on so many of the waters she is writing about.

But of course, in order to do what Wooste r did you have to have access to the waters. And that brings me to one last issue we should all be concerned about – public access to our lakeshores.
Twice now, within the past three years, Niagara Falls MPP Kim Craitor has tabled private member’s bills, urging a provincial government he’s a member of to pass legislation guarranteeing Ontario residents access to beaches along our lakes. But so far the government has made no move to pass a bill that might offend owners of lakeshore properties who erect fences and ‘no tresspassing’ signs right to the waterline.

In Niagara, there are pathetically few public beach areas left and, with pressure now on from developers to line the shores of our lakes with high-rise condos, there may be even fewer.

Our governments often call on us to show stewardship when it comes to protecting our lakes through the expenditure of our tax dollars for better sewage treatment and other actions.

In that spirit, Canadian and U.S. mayors and regional chairs around the Great Lakes, including St. Catharines Mayor Brian McMullan, Niagara Falls Mayor Ted Salci, Port Colborne Mayor Vance Badawey and Niagara regional chairman Peter Partington, signed on to an “Action Plan to Protect the Great Lakes” this May that, among other things, concludes that “there may be no better way to strengthen the public’s connection to the Great Lakes than to enhance and promote beaches and other shoreline activities. ... Drawing more20people to the shoreline can also boost local economies and contribute to healthier lifestyles.”

That is all well and good. But if our shorelines become the exclusive playgrounds for a privileged few, how much incentive will be left for the rest of us to look after them?


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